A priest’s encounter with Jew-hatred

Click photo to download. Caption: Modern anti-Semitic propaganda from the International People's Party. Credit: Herr Wolf via Wikimedia Commons.
Click photo to download. Caption: Modern anti-Semitic propaganda from the International People's Party. Credit: Herr Wolf via Wikimedia Commons.

I was in one of those big boxes in another city, waiting for a prescription. After wandering around for a few minutes, I sat down across the aisle from the pharmacy on one of the benches kindly provided by the store. I was wearing my cassock and vest and skufia (a priest’s cap). I had attended the New Mexico Orthodoxy clergy April meeting and stopped on my way home to fill a prescription, because it was significantly less expensive than at our home pharmacy.

Several people wheeled their carts past me and said hello or made various comments. I forget that folks are not used to seeing clerical garb in public any more, not even Roman Catholic priests, so often people will comment or ask the question, “Oh what denomination are you?” That affords me the opportunity for the stock response, “I’m not in a denomination, I’m Orthodox,” which may or may not lead to further conversation.

She was wearing a flower print dress and a matching scarf. The cross around her neck was tasteful, not too prominent, but nevertheless was not a mere charm; she meant it as a statement. She was, I would guess, about 40, though my estimate of people’s ages is notoriously flawed. She did not ask about my “denomination.” She allowed as how she had once visited an Orthodox church in yet another city in the state, and she was curious about something.

She asked if I wore my hat when I was at prayer because, you know, St. Paul says that women should cover their heads in church, but right after that he says that men should not cover their heads. I replied that I was not then at prayer and asked if she was. I said that, if the priest in that other parish had worn a hat in church, he would have taken it off at moments of prayer because that’s what we do, us Orthodox. That seemed to settle the issue.

In the next breath she quietly said something like, “You’ve got to be careful who you talk to, because many people who call themselves Christians have given up the true faith.” I realized that this might go rapidly downhill, so I simply agreed with her on the theory that she would wheel away at this point, satisfied that I was really Orthodox, or whatever she defined as Orthodox.

I was wrong.

She said, “You’ve got to be careful about the Jews, because you know they have taken over Hollywood and Wall Street and all the newspapers.” At this point I looked for any exit I could find, but the prescription was not yet ready. I said, “Where do you get such slanted information?” She replied that she did not really attend a church, because most of them were bogus, but she trusted a handful of preachers she had found on YouTube. They were telling the truth “like it is,” including the stuff about the Jews secretly ruling everything. I thought I would throw in a sarcastic quip about the Protocols of Zion, but I realized that she would have received such a note unblinkingly, as if it were the truth and meant I was beginning to bond with her in our secret knowledge about the state of the world.

I asked if she remembered that Jesus was a Jew and that the earliest church was and could only have been made up of Jews who followed him. She replied that Paul and Peter had argued about this, that Paul had won, and the Jews under Peter had lost, and nobody could force the Law on us anymore. I could see that this line of reasoning would lead to all Roman Catholics burning in hell, because they followed Peter as the first pope, but I didn’t go there. I said that Paul struggled mightily with the relation of Jews and Christians under the Romans—his masterwork, particularly in chapters 9–11—and that he said that God’s plan was to reunite us in some mysterious way at the end of time, but that for the moment we had to struggle to find our unity on the ground. She stood upright, with a knowing look and narrowed eyes, and told me that I was one of those “Christians” who had given up the faith. I heard the quotation marks in her tone of voice.

So I said in a loud voice, as the anger built within me, “These people are liars, they are leading you in the wrong direction, and you had better watch out for your soul.” At this she hastily pushed her cart down the aisle of over-the-counter medicines and disappeared around the end cap of the next aisle. My heart was pounding. People were looking but trying not to.

I was rattled. I drove home the couple hundred miles, rolling the events over and over in my mind, looking for alternative ways I could have handled the situation. None appeared.

This incident reminded me, in a stark way, that we have not dismantled the tide of hatred for the Jews who “rule the world.” No matter how many decades we have had since the Holocaust, an ocean of hostility continues, capable of rising to tidal levels in this one woman in a store on a sunny April afternoon. Most unnerving is that these attitudes and concepts and ideas are not at all perceived to be loony, twisted, or in any way prejudiced. They are simply perceived as the truth. And that’s that.

I look in the mirror and ask whether or not I am guilty of perpetuating these dangerous negative myths. I look away, confident that I personally am not. I have devoted a great chunk of my lifetime, energy and work to combatting such nonsense. But then I remember that this teaching was not uncommon in churches for more than a millennium, and that in my own tradition pogroms often happened on Holy Thursday—when people heard that the Jews had killed Christ, and that whole Jewish shtetls disappeared, wiped off the face of the earth by advancing Nazi hordes. It was not even a century ago. On a scale of world history, it is only moments since many of us (not all) have given up the teaching of contempt. We have no choice; we have to remain vigilant. Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.

Father Gabriel Rochelle is Pastor of St. Anthony of the Desert Orthodox Mission in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and a member of the Steering Committee of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s New Paths: Christians Engaging Israel Project.

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